The Pleasures That Lurk in the Back of the Book

The index has a fascinating history and holds a special place for one obsessive who sees it as a sort of conceptual map.

An index page cut into the shape of a heart
The Atlantic

It’s hard to believe, but the humble index—expediter of searches, organizer of concepts— prompted outcries as it became more widespread: If one has an index, why would anyone read a book? Alarms “were being sounded,” Dennis Duncan writes in his lively Index, A History of the, “that indexes were taking the place of books.” Jonathan Swift worried that people would “pretend to understand a Book, by scouting thro’ the Index, as if a Traveller should go about to describe a Palace, when he has seen nothing but the Privy.”

I confess to spending an undue amount of time in the Palace Privy—and loving it. Done well, an index, that list in the back of a book containing its concepts and references, is either hugely helpful, sending you directly to the mentions of, say, Theodore Roosevelt’s dog Pete attacking the French ambassador, when you don’t want to read the whole biography. Or it is eclectic and opinionated, clever and winking. It is a side door into the book: less formal, more personal than the route through copyright and title pages, tables of contents and dedications. It enables a kind of choose-your-own-adventure for the literary. You race right to the spots you want, and take your own tour through the author’s words. Indexes offer the reader multiple ways in and through the text, freeing them from the confines of an ineluctable narrative.

If you’re a reader and you don’t like indexes, you may have run across only poor ones. The pleasure I take in a book is determined not just by its main pages, the words carefully written by the author, but also by its adjunct elements, its dressing: the index, but also the dust jacket, the author bio, the dedication and acknowledgments, the typeface note.

I can track my own biography through these paratexts. In college, I coveted and collected well-turned footnotes, such as “You have a donkey, so have I …” from J. L. Austin’s essay “A Plea for Excuses” and Nicholson Baker’s “Perforation! Shout it out!” in his The Mezzanine. Professionally, my fascination with the guide words at the top of each page of a dictionary, indicating its alphabetical range of words, led me to become a reader of dictionaries and, subsequently, hired by one. I was tasked with amending the previous version of the dictionary to reflect changing word usage, including adding new meanings and new entries. My days were punctuated by each fresh new box of words—3x5 cards with examples of their use in writing. The labels on the boxes were themselves poetry, and so I defined “downhearted to dragon lady,” “mind-boggling to miniature schnauzer,” “skimble-skamble to skit.” Years later, as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, pre–Google search, we relied on the gloriously exhaustive volumes of the annual New York Times Index (lauded in The New York Times Book Review as “unique … indispensable … amazingly complete”) to track down sundry facts.

The moment I felt I had arrived as a writer was after finding my father’s name in the Times Index (“1975, Horowitz, Jay, O 15, 46:2”) and then discovering my own—“Horowitz, Alexandra, 10, 101”—in another writer’s book. I feel that I’ve launched on a writing project only when I’ve begun compiling indexlike documents on subject topics—“on the inside of your own eye,” “on street-crossing instructions,” “on running after one’s hat”—which themselves index the research I have read relating to the topic. After the manuscript is completed comes a thrilling day when I am sent my own book’s index—the person who compiles it is the first reader who isn’t invested in the book. The topics she pulls out, how she cuts the conceptual lines, are more than a concordance of words; they are her interpretation of the landscape of ideas in the book. The index reifies it as a book, at the same time that the choice to foreground one topic or another might surprise even the author.

And I was reminded, reading Duncan’s paean to them, just how whimsical indexes can be. By far the highlight of Lewis Carroll’s widely (and perhaps rightly) overlooked Sylvie and Bruno is the index (“Bread-sauce. What appropriate for? 58” and “Crocodiles, logic of; 230” are favorites). Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography neatly sums itself up, indexly: “doom, overall feeling of, ix-211.”

Unsurprisingly, in reading Duncan’s book, I began with the index. Such a book might have a quite self-conscious one, you’d think. Although the indexer, Paula Clarke Bain, is credited within the main body of the text (and self-indexed in the index), her name, like most who do her job, is not on the dust jacket with the author’s. But Bain’s playful, completely over-the-top index demonstrates how authorial the indexer’s presence is, leading the reader on wild-goose chases (“wild goose chase see chase, wild goose”; “goose chase, wild see wild-goose chase”), pointing out elements of the text that a reader might have missed, and commenting on Duncan’s description of her own task as “drudgery.” (Bain replies, “How dare you.”)

Samuel Johnson used similar language—harmless drudge—to describe the lexicographer who compiles a dictionary. As Duncan observes, indexes have a long history of being anything but “harmless,” which is what gives them the possibility of such personality. Indexes have been wielded to display wit, to skewer an author (“his egregious dulness”; “his Pedantry”; “his familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw”), and as a site of political battling (as when a Whig indexed a Tory History of England). Tasked with writing an introduction to an 18th-century sentimental novel, Henry Morley concocted an “Index to Tears,” enumerating all the instances of sobbing, flowing tears, and weeping in the emotionally overwrought tale. “A highly satisfying take-down,” Duncan writes. Duncan’s indexer comments on this episode via a winding set of cross-references (“blubbing see crying”; “crying see howling”; etc.) ending, finally, at a central title of the index.

In giving the index its biography, Duncan rightly celebrates the paratexts—the peripheral ephemera—that transmogrify an author’s work from a Microsoft Word doc into a pleasing object on the shelf of your local bookshop. The history of indexes, as Duncan tells it, is also a history of alphabetical order, chaptering, and the advent of page numbers. It is also, essentially, a history of the codex, the book as we know it, which can be riffled and browsed, its pages accessed at whim, unlike the unwieldy scroll. If those topics don’t get your heart racing, perhaps this isn’t the book for you—but that would be a shame. Duncan’s enthusiasms are contagious, such as his effusion over the “characterful” gothic capital J—actually meant to stand for 1—the first printed page number, in the margins of a 15th-century printed sermon: “I love this J all the more for its blurriness. I would rather it were this way.”

In an age when one can easily search for every instance of a word in a book, and we lack the perseverance to make it through an entire Twitter thread, the index is no longer the main suspect in our inability to read properly, as Swift and others once worried. But in one way, the index fear has been realized, insofar as some books are themselves indexes. As early as 1532, Duncan tells us, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch philosopher, wrote an index as a book; more recently, index fans will know of the short-story writer J. G. Ballard’s “The Index,” in which the fantastical narrative comes together through reading the alphabetical entries (ending, obliquely, when the indexer, Zielinski, “disappears, 761”).

And indexes have leapt off the page. The artist Helen Mirra has made a practice of creating her own indexes to books, including those of John Dewey and W. G. Sebald. For several years the University of Chicago hosted an exhibit of portions of her indexes, writ large, with entries painted on walls in buildings across campus. Encountering them, one could not help reading them as commenting on the scene, like museum art labels—so that the real world became the “art.” At the bottom of a severe set of stairs, one painted entry warned “blunders, 18; irreparable, so easy to commit, 114.” Another simply says, “Pauses, odd, 97.” Like any good index, all of these labels open up new ways of seeing and categorizing the world.

Indeed, indexes have not brought about the end of reading, but they did presage the dawn of the ubiquitous search engine. Duncan references Google maybe too many times (in 14 separate ways, per the index), but no wonder: It is today’s “wormhole” into not just one text but conceivably all texts. Far from displacing indexes, though, it has highlighted their unique ability to make previously unforeseen connections between ideas. They catalog our own desire to label and comment, to moor our ideas to the world.